Small Screen Berkeley: ‘The Watermelon Woman’, ‘Nationtime’ and Kino freebies

For your streaming pleasure: An overlooked gem of American independent filmmaking; an inspiring look at the National Black Political Convention; and free films from Kino Lorber.

The Watermelon Woman. Photo: Courtesy Roxie Theater

I don’t know if we’re there yet, but we’ve got to be getting close to the bottom of the barrel of previously unreleased motion pictures produced prior to the pandemic. There simply can’t be that many more waiting in the wings — and with winter and Lockdown 2.0 about to bite, anything currently in production is unlikely to be completed any time soon. In short, the outlook  for new films in 2021 is bleak.

Which means we’re likely to rely more and more on reissues for our entertainment over the next year or so. Thankfully, there’s a vast ocean of under appreciated oldies out there waiting to be discovered by a wider audience — and the Virtual Roxie is leading the re-release charge this week.

The Watermelon Woman (streaming beginning on Friday, Nov. 6) may be 25 years old, but — despite its video-store setting — it still feels fresh and relevant today. Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye, the film relates the story of movie buff and amateur researcher Cheryl (Dunye), who’s trying to learn as much as she can about a forgotten Black film actress from the 1940s known to audiences as The Watermelon Woman.

Ably supported by a sturdy supporting cast — including the wonderful Valerie Walker as chum and workmate Tamara — The Watermelon Woman does a terrific job imagining and recreating the fictional life of Fae Richards, the titular thespian employed in so-called ‘race films’ back in the day. The film also offers humorous and pointed insights about the treacherous intersection of sexuality and race — an intersection probably no easier to negotiate in the 21st century than in the 20th. This is an overlooked gem of American independent film-making that richly deserves more attention.

‘Nationtime’: An inspirational documentary courtesy of the Roxie

Bobby Seale in Nationtime. Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber

Casting its net all the way back to 1972, the Roxie has also hauled in a forgotten and once considered lost documentary entitled Nationtime. Filmed by director William Greaves over the course of three days in Gary, Indiana, Nationtime is a cinematic record of the National Black Political Convention, a gathering of thousands that culminated in the publication of a declaration supporting and encouraging the development of an independent Black political movement.

It’s inspirational stuff from start to finish, beginning with  a stirring call to arms by Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, who suggests that if both major political parties continue to fail and reject the African-American community then they must accept the consequences of their actions: the arrival of a third political force.

There’s also a lengthy speech by the Reverend Jesse Jackson that serves as a welcome reminder of his unparalleled public speaking skills — and of what opportunities were lost when his 1980s presidential campaigns went nowhere. Also on hand: Sidney Poitier narrating, Harry Belafonte reciting poetry, Isaac Hayes singing ‘I Stand Accused’, brief appearances by Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, and blink and you’ll miss them appearances by Ron Dellums and Barbara Jordan. And some late breaking news: Nationtime is now also available for streaming from Pacific Film Archive!

Finally, distributor Kino Lorber has an offer that you simply can’t refuse: seven completely free films, streaming gratis through Nov. 15! Among the offerings are Russian war drama Beanpole, the 2010 restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the unique documentary Dawson City: Frozen in Time, Ida Lupino’s noir classic The Hitch-Hiker, and three others. The price is definitely right!